Hidden horror behind the racetracks of the emirs
Peter Beaumont, foreign affairs editor, The Observer
Sunday June 3, 2001
At least 30 boys a month are being kidnapped in Pakistan to feed the banned slave trade in racing camel jockeys in the United Arab Emirates.
According to a human rights organisation in Pakistan, the number of boys - often as young as four - smuggled abroad to work at camel camps is rapidly rising.
The Karachi-based Ansar Burney Welfare Trust (founded by Ansar Burney, a human rights lawyer) claimed last week that 2,000 boys have been taken to the camps over the last two years, despite laws introduced in the UAE in 1998 forbidding the use of small boys in the often dangerous sport.
The trade in boys for camel racing has long been the subject of a campaign by both the UN and Anti-Slavery International. Evidence, however, suggests the practice is becoming more prevalent.
According to a report last year by Anti-Slavery International, the children are often kidnapped, sold by their parents or relatives, or taken on false pretences.
In the UAE the boys are often underfed and subjected to crash diets to make them as light as possible. Some children have reported being beaten while working as jockeys, and others have been seriously injured during races.
The rules of the Emirates Camel Racing Federation forbid the use of riders under the age of 14, or weighing less than 45 kilograms.
The UAE government said in 1998 it was doing its best to eradicate the practice and that 'any camel owners found to be in breach of the rules should be severely punished'.
Anti-slavery campaigners have had some successes in returning camel slaves. Two years ago an eight-year-old Pakistani boy, who had allegedly been kidnapped to work as a camel jockey, was repatriated by the authorities.
He was one of the luckier ones. In August 1999, a four-year-old jockey from Bangladesh was found abandoned and close to death in the desert. In 2000, Anti-Slavery International reported the case of a four-year-old jockey from Bangladesh whose employer burnt him on his legs for under-performing. The boy was left crippled.
Although some of the children are taken as indentured labourers with the parents' consent, in other cases children are drugged and abducted.
All 10-year-old Mohammed Zubair Arrian remembers of his abduction last year is meeting a mysterious red-bearded man in his village in Pakistan, and then waking up from a drug-induced stupor in an airport thousands of miles away. The red-bearded man told him he was now a camel racer at which point he fled the airport.
Police believe Mohammed was drugged and smuggled into Abu Dhabi on a Pakistan International Airlines flight on a forged travel document.
The boy said he met the red-bearded man in Medina Syedan, his village in Punjab province. He remembered losing consciousness, but nothing more until he awoke at Abu Dhabi airport.
'When I opened my eyes, I was in a totally different world,' Mohamed said. The abductor 'threatened to kill me if I made any noise. But as soon as he turned his back, I ran for my life.'
A passer-by found him crying on the streets of Abu Dhabi on 6 September, and turned him over to police. He was eventually brought back to Pakistan when Burney heard about his case.
In November UAE police rescued two other Pakistani brothers aged six and four who had been kidnapped to work as jockeys.
They had raided a camel farm in the oasis town of Al Ain on a tip from the Pakistani embassy and rescued the two boys. The six-year-old, Shajar, was being treated in hospital for leg injuries.
Burney maintains that most of the agents kidnapping the children were Pakistani. He said they could 'easily get fake birth certificates, passports, and even fake parents, so the camel owners thought they were brought in with full consent'.
Children are sold for up to US $3,000 (£2,100) each.